South Boston Skater. Canvas Creator. Join the collective of artist and Blochaus Gallery founder, Markus Sebastiano.
The polar vortex blasts through the canyons of the industrial revolution, wind whipping between the vacant factories that form the heart of Lawrence, Massachusetts. We cross a dry canal, through a tunnel once used to transport goods by horse and buggy.
On the other side, a barren parking lot is lined with crumbling buildings. A demolition crew with white jumpsuits stretched over their winter layers strips an ancient mill of its innards, like hunters gutting deer. The New Urbanization that swept through so many American cities over the last two decades missed this town completely.
Artist and Blochaus gallery owner Markus Sebastiano emerges from the building behind us, his bright smile and upbeat vibe, a welcomed contrast to the icy melancholy surrounding us. Fitting. Over the past several months Sebastiano has been helping to rebuild and rebrand this city.
“The goal for the space was to combine antiques with contemporary art.”
Lawrence was one of the earliest American mill towns, the cradle of American manufacturing and the crown jewel of the Merrimack Valley. But the post-industrial era had not been kind and the last half-century has seen the city’s reputation become more focused on crime than creation. Sebastiano escorts us inside the former textile mill to see how he’s helping reshape that reputation.
“The goal for the space was to combine antiques with contemporary art,” Sebastiano explains as we cross the unfinished hallway into his studio. Built before electric lights, the windows stretch a dozen feet in either direction, offering a panoramic view of the city and its patchwork of residential and institutional architecture. The studio is spacious, the kind of wide open space that is all but unavailable in bigger cities. Power tools, BMX bikes and oversized paintings fill each corner—it’s tough to tell if this place is more club house or workspace.
“Over twenty artists have had residencies here…”
“It started as a collective. Over twenty artists have had residencies here, renting small spaces. They filter in, they filter out, though I think we’re finally settled,” Sebastiano tells Five O’Clock, as he walks over to a wooden door that looks conspicuously new for this hundred-and-forty-year-old building. “Here, let me show you the gallery.”
The door slides open and we step out of Lawrence all together; New York, LA—anywhere but a burnt-out mill city in some far-off corner of puritan Massachusetts. This is a real gallery, selling real paintings by artists with real talent. The art is kinetic. The styles are dissimilar but the aesthetic consistent. Realism and expressionism cozy up alongside collage and pop culture. This is Blochaus’ first show as a gallery and Sebastiano’s debut as a curator.
“This show was curated from the point of view of where my life has been.”
“I’ve either done a show with every one of these artists, a feature, or interacted with each of them in some way over the last 4 years. This show was curated from the point of view of where my life has been.” The works come from some of Boston’s most established artists, like Adam O’Day and Percy Fortini-Wright, alongside up-and-comers and art world outsiders like Dante Latessa and Jon Hen. “It was interesting. I went to every one of these artists’ studios when I was putting together the show. I would go in, grab a painting, grab a drink, talk for a bit, see how they work.”
Sebastiano grew up working in his dad’s metal shop, which was below one of the Merrimack Valley’s main practice spots for rock bands, and you can see how the juxtaposition of wild creativity and tireless work ethic inform his art and curatorial aesthetic. It becomes clear that Markus—who has built a reputation and a business creating custom pieces for Boston’s booming restaurant industry—doesn’t take much time off or leave the workspace, except to meet with clients and stock up on supplies. Even skateboarding across the studio is done with the goal stoking his creative fires. And those fires are starting to catch within the community at large.
“They’re hungry to be entrepreneurs, they’re hungry to be artists…everyone is feeding off one another.”
“Lawrence needs this,” Sebastiano explains. “All the young kids coming up are different than older generations; they’re hungry to be entrepreneurs, they’re hungry to be artists, hungry to be writers…everyone is feeding off one another.”
“The scene is much different now. It’s not as grimy, we’re trying to be a bit more sophisticated. The hope is to bring people from the city this way. The opening was promising—people came from all over New England. New Hampshire, North Shore, South Shore, Back Bay and the South End—the overall response was I had no idea Lawrence was like this. And it’s not, really, but it could be.”
The city is changing, though, and the idea that the young creatives growing up in the area can stay here, work and make a living, is central to that change. Murals are popping up on Essex Street and Hollywood has begun making use of the city’s classic American architecture. Ben Affleck was flipping cars in the Blochaus’ parking lot for his forthcoming film Live By Night, and Kathryn Bigelow just shot her as-yet-untitled Detroit riot film here.
Soon the demo crews will cede to construction crews. New restaurants are opening and new artists are emerging. The notion that this city could one day be known more for creativity than crime is starting to ring truer every day. And from the story-tall windows of the Blochaus you can see that it has already started.
The Blochaus Gallery is located at 250 Canal Street in Lawrence, Massachusetts